In the last few installments of our Design Thinking blog series, we’ve explored different techniques and solutions that can be put into place as stay-at-home orders are gradually lifted. In this blog post, we’ll be taking a more detailed look at these solutions by exploring how we have made changes at our offices in Bentonville, AR, Franklin, MA, and Fort Worth, TX.

Disclaimer: It's important to note that while these decisions were right for HFA, they may not be right for your business. Any solutions that we have decided as a company not to implement are not a determination of effectiveness or lack thereof. The following solutions are best for our budget, specific office spaces, and other vital factors agreed upon by our leadership team.

The time is approaching where employees will be planning their return to the office. With much focus being on the cleanliness of the office, the HVAC and plumbing systems can be easily overlooked as reasonable solutions to help diminish the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for spreading COVID-19).

Here at HFA, we looked at how we can mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 office by office, taking into account best practices for each particular building and our overall budget. It should be noted that each measure listed depends on the office’s location, and it may not be as feasible to perform a comprehensive measure in every office. We are also continuing to work closely with our Mexico City office to see what actions can be executed to protect our employees there too.

Modifying Plumbing and HVAC Systems to Mitigate the Spread of SARS-CoV-2

Hands-free solutions and proper ventilation and filtration have been shown to decrease the likelihood of spreading infectious diseases, like SARS-CoV-2 significantly. A common mode of transmission is proven to come from respiratory droplets passed through the air, which makes it essential to look at both plumbing and ventilation and filtration solutions when heeding recommendations for updates around your office.

Why Plumbing?

For each office, improving the workplace will be unique, strongly depending on individual situations and constraints. Plumbing fixtures are high contact points so it makes sense to focus on plumbing fixtures first. Various reports show that the virus can be active for several days upon certain hard surfaces. (Source: CDC)

Why Ventilation and Filtration?

“During the 2002-2003 pandemic, SARS-CoV-2 was shown to have airborne disease transmission potential. COVID-19 has developed into a pandemic more severe than SARS in 2003. Subsequent observational studies and modeling of COVID-19 suggest the likelihood of transmission through the air via aerosols.” (Source: ASHRAE)

ASHRAE has recently published two statements on SARS-CoV-2 that support the likelihood of airborne exposure and mitigation based on ventilation and filtration:

1. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled. Changes to building operations, including heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, can reduce these airborne exposures.

2. Ventilation and filtration provided by heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems can reduce the airborne concentration of SARS-CoV-2 and thus the risk of transmission through the air. Unconditioned spaces can cause thermal stress to individuals that may be directly life-threatening, and that may also lower resistance to infection. In general, the disabling of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems are not a recommended measure to reduce the transmission of the virus.

Let's take a look at some of the specific solutions we found for the Bentonville, Franklin, and Fort Worth offices.

Bentonville, Arkansas

Our primary restrooms in the Bentonville office contain handle flush low flow urinals and handle faucets for the lavatories. Changing these fixtures to touchless fixtures would be significant in mitigating the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2.  

A few other steps being taken to decrease the likelihood of spreading SARS-CoV-2-causing germs throughout our Bentonville office include:

• Replacing all sinks with sensor or touch-free faucets in the breakroom and coffee bar areas throughout the office

• Increasing ventilation throughout the office to 30% above the ASHRAE 62.1 minimum requirements

• Allowing the HVAC unit to run longer before and after occupancy to flush out the building

• Changing out all RTU filters to MERV13

• Monitoring humidity levels to validate that it stays between 40-60%. If not, additional measures may be needed.

Because the HVAC units in the Bentonville office are on a Building Automated System (BAS), controlling ventilation is more easily programmed and closely monitored. Before putting into action any of these increased HVAC strategies, units should first be studied to ensure that they can handle the increased energy loads.

Franklin, Massachusetts

Much like the Bentonville office in terms of viable solutions available to us, our team in Franklin is working closely to minimize the risk of employees contracting SARS-CoV-2 while in the office in a few ways:

• Changing main restroom fixtures to touch-free lavatory faucets

• Replacing breakroom and coffee bar faucets with hands-free faucets

• Validating the economizer and outside air damper operation to ensure that fresh air is circulated throughout the office

• Allowing the HVAC unit to run longer before and after occupancy to flush out the building. Additionally, we are programming the HVAC unit to ensure that the fan is running continuously during occupied conditions (A 7-day programmable thermostat controls the unit in the Franklin studio. Fewer strategies are available than with the Bentonville HVAC unit.)

In both the Bentonville and Franklin office, we've chosen not to change the existing water closet fixtures, as making this change would have tremendous effects on each office’s infrastructure.

Fort Worth, Texas

Unfortunately, our Fort Worth office is part of a larger office complex, forcing us to adhere to our landlord's restrictions. However, as a team, we've compiled a list of strategies that we feel can go far in mitigating the spread of SARS-CoV-2 among the landlord's tenants. These conversations have been initiated with the landlord, and we hope to make progress soon as far as plumbing and HVAC solutions are concerned. We're looking to replace the breakroom faucet, making it touch-free to comply with the rest of our offices.

What About UV-C Technology?

UV-C options have been looked at for all offices, but right now, it has been decided to wait and explore this in the future. Several articles support the likelihood that it is effective. ASHRAE has not yet made a recommendation for or against the use of UV energy in air systems to mitigate the risk of spreading infectious aerosols.

You can read more about our thoughts on UVGI technology in our previous blog post, "How Ultraviolet Radiation Could Limit COVID-19 Exposure in Buildings".

Mitigating the Spread of SARS-CoV-2, One System at a Time

Determining the appropriate course of action in this post-COVID-19 era is difficult, but not impossible. We encourage you to look to others within the industry that know solutions that best fit your company's specific needs, whether that means from a budget standpoint or any other non-negotiable you may have.

Above all, share any ideas you may have with your fellow architects, engineers, and designers. We can help you evaluate which solutions make the most sense based on budget, occupants, and individual spaces. There is plenty of research coming out each day to assess each solution's effectiveness in mitigating the risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2.

Dive into the rest of our Design Thinking Blog series to learn more about designing or reopening businesses post-COVID-19!

Contact Greg Schluterman, P.E., LEED AP BD&C, CxA, ASHRAE BEAP & BEMP, and learn more about how we can help you!